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Assessing risk in sex offender cases

Moscow-Pullman Daily News (ID) - 10/11/2015

Oct. 10--Steven Sitler was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 2005 on one count of lewd conduct with a child under the age of 16.

Roughly eight months later he was back in Latah County, released on probation and ordered to serve a little less than a year in the county jail, with release to attend treatment.

Latah County Prosecuting Attorney Bill Thompson said this sentence is typical for a first-time sex offender.

Sitler was also given a life term of probation. That, Thompson said, is not typical but neither was his case.

Sitler recently returned to court after he and his wife gave birth to their first child.

"I have never had a case like that and I've been practicing law here since 1980 and prosecuting since 1992," he said. "We've had much more egregious conduct, but the victims were limited in number. The combination of the number of disclosed victims, the youth of Mr. Sitler as all this was developing, the span of time over which the offending occurred and frankly the evaluation of him as far as the risk that he poses, is that untreated and unsupervised he shows a huge risk to the community."

Typically, first-time sex offenders either go to prison for treatment -- with the local judge retaining jurisdiction over them -- or are sentenced to probation, with a period of local incarceration, Thompson said.

Idaho law presumes probation unless certain aggravating circumstances exist, such as large numbers of victims, young victims, egregious acts or if the offender denies responsibility, Thompson said.

The court tries to avoid sending people directly to prison, only doing enough to stop the offensive behavior, he said.

Over the past 10 years the Latah County Prosecuting Attorney's Office has received 225 referrals for sex offense cases and charged only 121 of those cases, Thompson said. The others didn't meet the minimum requirements of a crime, he said.

Forty-six of those charged included lewd conduct and 33 included rape, including juvenile defendants. Of the 121 charged, 49 remain active on probation, on parole or in prison, while the others have completed their sentences, he said.

Sitler's sentence

Sitler, 30, of Moscow, pleaded guilty under a plea agreement with the state in September 2005 to one count of lewd conduct with a child under 16. Thompson said it is a common misconception that people will receive a lesser sentence by taking a plea deal. The sentence in a plea deal is based on the punishment handed out in similar cases, including those that have gone to trial, and are driven by the facts of each case, he said.

Sitler was sentenced the following month to life in prison, with retained jurisdiction. After completing his treatment program, or "rider," he returned to Latah County, served less than a year inside the Latah County Jail and was ordered onto life probation.

"That is very rare," Thompson said. "I don't think we have anybody else that is on life probation. That is a reflection of the concern about prospective danger that the court was convinced that Mr. Sitler was somebody that would need supervision for life."

The case was different from the beginning though, when the state discovered multiple victims only through self-disclosures from Sitler.

"The Sitler case is unique because evidence we had through the investigation was extremely limited. It was limited to only one family of victims. There were a number of families who declined to cooperate with any investigation or participate in any of the restitution requests we had," he said.

The law says there must be more than just a confession for a charge, and the other ways of gathering evidence were not working, Thompson said. In return for disclosing all his victims so they could be offered assistance, Thompson said, it was agreed Sitler would face only one charge of lewd conduct.

This past August, the state asked Latah County 2nd District Judge John Stegner to provide guidance following the birth of Sitler's son. In a Sept. 1 hearing, Thompson said Sitler disclosed in a polygraph having "contact with his child that resulted in actual sexual stimulation." At that time, Sitler was ordered to have a "line of sight" chaperone present at all times when with his child.

Treatment for sex offenders

Dr. Leslie Lothstein, former director of psychology for the Institute of Living in Hartford, Conn., who specializes in evaluation and treatment of sex offenders, said the 800,000 individuals on the national sex offender registry fall into one of two categories -- 98 percent of them include individuals such as voyeurs and exhibitionists, while sexual lust killers and child sex offenders only make up 2 percent of the registry.

Lothstein said based on Sitler's admittance to his actions and having admitted in a polygraph to having thoughts of a sexual nature about his own child, he is pushing into that 2 percent group.

"That is an usual case and it has it's own dimensions," he said. "He is not the typical sex offender."

The purpose of treatment should be to keep the community safe and the offender from their impulses, Lothstein said. According to the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Assistance, sex offenders commonly are treated with medication, cognitive behavioral or psycho-educational therapy.

A problem with current treatment is lumping all offenders together as if they are the same. The assumption is that all sex offenders receive treatment and it never works, he said.

"Don't treat them with shame and humiliation, because that will increase the risk," Lothstein said. "Help them grow up and grow out of their problems and become productive members of society, which they can and some do."

Recidivism in sex offenders

Lothstein said 4 percent of all sexual offenders will reoffend in a sexual crime. Many are arrested for other troubles that come with being on the sex offender registry, he said.

According to federal data, of 4,295 child molesters released from state prisons in 1994, 5.1 percent were rearrested for a sex crime within three years, 14.1 percent for a violent crime and 39.4 percent for a crime of any kind.

Child molesters were more likely than any other type of offender, both sexual or nonsexual, to be arrested for a sex crime against a child after their release, according to the Justice Department' website. The website also states child molesters with more than one prior arrest had a 44.3 percent overall recidivism rate, compared to a 23.3 percent rate for those with only one prior arrest. Evidence also shows offenders with male victims have higher recidivism rates, according to SMART.

Lothstein said the risk for reoffending increases when the offender crosses categories, such as both male and female or both young and teenage victims. Techniques such as shaming and restrictive housing can add additional stress to the individual, he said.

To help protect the community and an offender's own family, the individual needs to look at their developmental history to understand possible trauma that may have led to their actions and help them understand what they have done, Lothstein said.

"I don't believe that a true serial sex offender, pedophile, can ever be rehabilitated where they can be allowed in a community without structure and supervision," Thompson said. "Even then in some cases the risk to the community is too great."

Thompson said cases where an offender was caught young, underwent treatment, was given structure and become law abiding, productive members of the community are more frequently seen.

A watchful eye

Through probation the court can have a great amount of control over someone's life. Thompson said the quality of probation depends heavily on the probation officer's case load.

"Here in our district we really have good probation officers. They are proactive," he said.

A challenge with a life term of probation though, is that as officers leave, new ones will have to take over that case along with all their other cases, he said.

The judge will typically order additional terms of probation in addition to a standard list, such as sex offender treatment or not frequenting places where children are present without an approved chaperone, Thompson said. Judge Stegner just recently added that offenders not only have to complete polygraph tests, but pass them, he said.

"Polygraphs are not perfect, but they are a good tool for monitoring what is going on," he said.

For sex offenders they have to disclose any sexual activity, then under a polygraph test are asked if they have disclosed all their activity.

"Fortunately we (Latah County) do not have a lot of the violent sexual cases," he said.

Thompson said in the county's experience, the majority of people who are convicted of sex offenses complete probation successfully. Because of the way sex offenders are screened, most who end up on probation are relatively low risks to reoffend, can handle treatment well and get the structure they need through probation, he said.

Samantha Malott can be reached at (209) 883-4639, or by email to


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